Lessons From Soweto

I travelled to South Africa for the animals and they were grand and did not disappoint. When I return it will be for the people first, then the flora and fauna. I found them genuine, welcoming and overtly friendly. Whatever you do, if you travel to this beautiful place take in the history and take in a guided tour of Soweto.

In writing about it I couldn’t possibly do any justice to the subject of apartheid and what the people of South Africa endured under its brutal policies. I’m not qualified to draw too many conclusions or express any worthy opinions. One thing that I find amazing however is how far the people and the nation have come in just 23 years since free elections were held (one man, one vote) and Nelson Mandela was elected President.

During our brief stay in Johannesburg Mercy and I had the opportunity to visit Soweto and then the Apartheid Museum. It’s important to do them in THAT order so when you visit the museum you have context. I never got impressionist art until I visited Monet’s Garden in Giverny, France. Only after seeing the garden and the water lilies in their natural landscape did they manifest themselves in the panoramic canvasses in the oval of the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. So, go to Soweto first. Hire a guide and go.

I could write pages about the history of Soweto and surrounding areas. The legislation of apartheid began in 1948 when the National Party came into power, but many restrictions on the black majority (whites made up 20% of the population) began in the late 1800s. Dutch settlers invoking a right to the land given by God saw no reason to surrender what they believed to be theirs.

Nearly half of the black population were living in cities and worked for low wages for on farms and in industry, including the significant mining industry. Their labor was the engine that allowed the country to prosper. While white workers wages were protected by law employers could pay black workers whatever they were willing to work for. This is the pretext for what would spawn the uprising that would lead to the freedom enjoyed today throughout the country. This is probably a gross over-simplification; for the sake of brevity and my limited knowledge on the subject I’ll defer the details to the experts.

As recently as fewer than 25 years ago black citizens were not allowed to participate in the voting process. The cities were very similar to how I imagine some parts of our American South in the 50s and 60s. There were separate entries, water fountains, transportation, and schools. Everything was segregated to the point that every piece of the country was designated as belonging to one group or another. The whites, the blacks, the coloreds, and the others (mostly Chinese and Indian immigrants). Blacks were forbidden to own homes in the cities and were in only tolerated as necessary transients for the purpose of their labor. They could not move freely within their own country. Speech regarding their plight could land them in jail. Working conditions for many were deplorable.

By the early 1950s the African National Congress began to rally blacks to oppose the laws that governed them and in so doing large numbers participated in boycotts, work strikes and organized civil disobedience. The threat of strikes by mine workers for better wages and conditions was met by the government with the threat of bringing in tens of thousands of Chinese as replacement workers. Thousands of blacks and a smaller number of colored and white sympathizers were arrested further exasperating or more correctly mobilizing the people against the government and its supporters.

By 1956 Nelson Mandela and scores of other opposition leaders were indicted after the ANC, joined with the Communist Party of South Africa, issued the “Freedom Charter” with the primary assertion that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it, black and white, and called for the freedoms found in the United States Bill of Rights. A critical moment came in 1962 in Sharpeville when police fired into a crowd killing 67 and wounding 186 including many women and children. Blacks were being murdered in the streets for assembling or for being out after their curfew. The timeline is long and writ with thousands of details that describe what it was like to be black and South African. Mandela was finally found and sent to prison for life, narrowly escaping the death penalty in 1963.

With the world now on their side the people of South Africa persisted over the next 30 years. The government offered shallow concessions but the people wanted simply equality. Nothing short. With increasing pressure form inside the government and the international community, but as recently as 1989 4,000 deaths were reported as a result of the brutal apartheid laws under the leadership of Prime Minister PW Botha and scores of others were tortured, imprisoned, or simply disappeared. With Botha retiring and giving way to Frederick W. de Klerk in August, 1989 the stage was set for the release of Nelson Mandela and the reveal of the ANC. So many details are left to learn.

Knowing all of this, if all of this came to a head in 1994 how is it these people are some of the friendliest and industrious I’ve ever met? You cannot enter a shop or eatery or even pass a stranger on the street without receiving a warm and genuine smile and greeting. Where is all of the hate and just bitterness? Have they forgotten? Certainly not as it was explained to us by our guide, but they have forgiven.

Soweto is still a black township. Everyone is welcome. Some have left for the city or other areas and many have come. Every economic status can be found there. As we drove and walked around Soweto we saw people of every economic status carving a life out of whatever talents and abilities they were given by God or had developed. Nowhere and not once did I hear a negative thought or some notion that anyone was privileged over an other. The poorest of the poor found a way. Beggars who could do something and those who are able-bodied seeking to solely survive off the work of others are not looked upon with much favor and seem few. It was explained to me that if a man can find an old ironing board one day he had the start of his business. In the following days or weeks he could find a mismatched set of wheels or casters and perhaps another day a large burlap bag and a rope. Then he could tow his homemade vehicle around the town and collect recyclables and trade them for cash. The crime is low and people help each other. There’s an amazing sense of community no doubt solidified by the mass resistance that led to their freedom. Even the poorest of the poor, and there are plenty, seem to have pride and self-determination. The government provides plenty (some say not enough), but everyone finds a way to cobble together some way of earning money and being self-reliant. You just don’t see people making excuses for their birthright or lack thereof. They work and they work hard. It’s no wonder they beat the atrocity of apartheid and truly made South Africa a country that welcomes all. The will of the people to work and be independent is fierce. Most that I spoke with don’t like their President, Jacob Zuma, a black man.

Anton Lembede, a lawyer with a master’s degree in philosophy, preached self-determination and self-reliance and called his philosophy Africanism. This Africanism championed by Lembede struck a chord with Mandela, who had witnessed the many humiliations meted out to black people in the city. Incredibly, I saw nothing of a people casting blame or making excuses or complaining that their birthright didn’t allow them to succeed and prosper.

There is no passion found playing small and settling for life that is less than the one you are capable of living.
~ Nelson Mandela

The Freedom Charter

The people shall govern
All national groups shall have equal rights
The people shall share in the country`s wealth
The land shall be shared among those who work it
All shall be equal before the law
All shall enjoy equal human rights
There shall be work and security
The doors of learning and culture shall be opened
There shall be houses, security and comfort
There shall be peace and friendship

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